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Ottawa Better Block




The location chosen for this project was East Main Street in Downtown Ottumwa, Iowa, a former coal-mining town of (now) 24,000 along the Des Moines River. One of the recurring themes on pre-installation surveys was the lack of things to do. People wanted places to eat and shop Downtown, as something fun for their kids to engage in once the area's safety issues were addressed.

To drive more restaurants and shops, we identified four local entrepreneurs through the surveying process to test their ideas during the event. We partnered them with property owners on the block to gain access to the vacant buildings, graphic designers to help with branding and storefront design, and local volunteers to help with building shelving, cleaning out the spaces, and all other elements of preparation to get the businesses up and running.

Ottumwa has a well-loved trail along the Des Moines River that is somewhat disconnected from the rest of the Downtown area. To reconnect it and encourage active transportation to the trail area, we connected East Main Street to the bike trail with an on-street bike lane.

Within the spacem there were several other disconnections to address. Part of our work included activating the historic Ottumwa Theatre, a space in the heart of Downtown that, until recently, had been boarded up for decades. The Legacy Foundation in Ottumwa brought the theater up to code in recent years, but it lacked an operator to complete its renovation and build it back into the community space it once was. During the Better Block's launch, we opened up the doors to the theater and invited people to enjoy dance classes and a pop-up bar inside, and the stage hosted its first live music show in a generation. The money raised from the concert is being used to install restrooms in the theater in order for more events to be able to take place.


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